The man lying in the hospital bed looked gaunt-faced and pale. He wasn’t the burly, robust man Nick had locked horns with for seemingly his whole life. Thin, clear tubes attached to his father’s left arm ran up to plastic bags hung on an intravenous stand. Colored wires taped to his barrel-shaped chest led to a digital monitor on the wall. The machine emitted a steady, muted beeping sound. The blue hospital gown, partially opened and pulled to one side, revealed a large white bandage around his father’s chest. A pinkish stain surrounded a small drainage tube inserted through the bandage.
Nick pulled a chair to the right side of the bed so as not to disturb the tubes and wires. Leaning forward, he placed his hand on his father’s forearm. Beneath the coarse, curly hair, the skin felt cool and dry. He studied the tattoo on his father’s upper right arm, a permanent tribute to his mother, Rosemarie. Although the colors had faded over the years, the word “Rosie” stood out in black ink on a red heart. Two roses framed each side of the heart, their long stems curved downward and then formed into crossed dark green swords under it.
Nick looked up to find his father gazing back at him through half-closed eyes.
“Hey, Nick,” he croaked.
For a moment, Nick wished he would yell at him in the deep-chested bellow he had heard so many times. “Hi Pop. How ya feeling?”
His father’s laugh sounded more like a wheeze. “Peachy.”
“They removed the bullet. You were lucky, it missed both your heart and lung.”
“Good,” Dom said as he struggled to push his body upward in the bed.
Nick pressed a button on the side of the bed raising his father to a sitting position.
His dad nodded and cleared his throat.
“Water?” Nick held a plastic cup with a straw to his father’s lips. He watched as he sucked in the cool liquid, coughed and then drank some more.
“Sal and Rosa, are they . . .?” His father’s eyes widened with fear, an expression Nick had never seen on his dad’s face.
“They’re fine. A bullet grazed Sal’s arm here,” Nick pointed to his left upper arm. “And he has cuts on his face and arms from the flying glass. They patched him up and sent him home. Nonna’s shook up and worried about you, but not hurt. She’s at the church now with Father Santore. She wanted to light a candle for you.”
His father closed his eyes. “Thank God they’re all right. How long has it been?”
“The shooting was last night.”
“Helluva thing,” his father said. “Flipping dough one minute, shot the next.” His laughter turned into a coughing spasm. He pressed his hands to his chest and winced. “Have they caught the bastards that did this?”
“No, not yet.” Nick stood. “I should go, you need to rest. They told me not to tire you out.”
His father grasped Nick’s hand. “Could ya stay a little longer?”
“Sure.” Nick lowered himself back into the chair.
“I hate to ask you, Nick,” his father paused, “The restaurant—”
“I got it, Pop. Don’t worry. I’m staying at home with Nonna and Sal.”
“Thank you.” His father closed his eyes and sighed. “I know you hate the restaurant. But just until I’m back on my feet. How bad’s the damage?”
“The front window’s being replaced tomorrow. There’s a lot of smoke and water damage inside. I’ll get it fixed.”
“Insurance should cover it. Ask Rosa . . .” His father’s eyelids drooped shut.
Nick waited. Sure his father had fallen asleep, Nick eased his hand from under his father’s limp fingers.
Dom’s eyelids fluttered. He squeezed Nick’s fingers. “Love ya, Nick.”
The cleanup in the restaurant progressed faster than Nick had expected. Sal wheedled three days off from school but worked each day from early morning until late into the night helping with the restoration.
The number of neighboring business owners and residents who streamed into the restaurant amazed Nick. Each were happy to share stories of how Nonna had helped them over the years, and eager for an opportunity to repay her kindness.
The owner of the hardware store down the block brought over electric sanders and helped Nick strip down the charred tables and chairs. Then, he and Sal stained and lacquered them.
A quiet, high school-aged girl arrived and set up her paint case on the floor by the one unmarred wall in the restaurant. Using an old photograph Nonna had given her, the girl spent days creating a Trompe l’oeil of a weathered trellis leading into a vibrantly colored vineyard on the wall behind the hostess table. Amazed by her talent, Nick stared at the detailed painting and wished he and Katie could vanish into the beautiful Italian countryside and escape Ruby.
Loretta, the florist on the corner, presented Nonna with two life-sized, silk Cypress trees potted inside Mediterranean-style stone urns. They flanked the small reception area wall near the mural.
Each evening at seven, Nick and Sal took a break to drive to the hospital. Sal walked with Katie, and Nick followed, unseen in his car a block behind them. Thankfully, the green van didn’t make a reappearance.
Sal relayed messages to Nick that Katie wanted to talk to him. She called Nick’s cell several times, but he let her calls go to his mailbox. Afraid to be alone with her and at a loss to explain his bizarre actions, he avoided calling her and only texted short apologies that ended with I Luv U.
Katie didn’t reply to his texts. Her latest voice mail message sounded angry. “If you do love me, then you would at least speak to me in person.”
Nonna pushed to have the restaurant reopened by the time his father came home from the hospital. She orchestrated the cleanup and redecorating, negotiated with the insurance company, and called Captain Brannigan twice a day demanding information about the people who had attacked her restaurant.
Nick threw his energy into the work and blocked out his growing frustration over Katie and his dread of Ruby’s looming premiere movie event. He rolled a second coat of paint onto the restaurant walls. The pale, coppery color Nonna chose looked unimpressive in the can, but once on the walls, it gave the large dining room a warm, cozy glow. The refinished tables and chairs stood in the middle of the polished floor until the walls dried.
Captain Brannigan arrived at the restaurant the fourth morning following the attack and greeted Nonna. He walked around shaking his head and then patted Nick on the back and complimented his hard work.
“We believe the people who did this are all dead,” Brannigan told Nick and his grandmother.
“You say a man named Jones was the ringleader. Why he do this to us?” Nonna asked.
Nick stopped painting when he heard the name Jones.
“So far we’ve only positively ID’ed the one I told you about, Rosa,” Brannigan said. “Frank Jones, the driver of the van. Witnesses gave us his license plate number.”
“A van?” Nick asked.
“Yes, a 1986 green Ford. Two of my officers spotted it and attempted to pull it over. Jones sped up and a chase ensued. The van plunged off an overpass at over eighty miles per hour. Jones and his three passengers were pronounced dead at the scene. We recovered guns, same caliber as the bullets we dug out of your walls, though we’ll have to wait for ballistics to make an exact match. But from what witnesses described and the incendiary materials we found in the van, we’re fairly certain they were they perpetrators.”
“His name was Frank Jones?” Nick asked.
Brannigan nodded. “He went by Mr. Jones on the street. Had quite a record. Rape and murder, among other things. He’d only been out of prison a couple of months. Still can’t figure a motive for the attack.” Brannigan studied Nick’s open-mouthed expression. “Did you know this Jones character?”
“No. Only curious about who’d do this.” Nick turned his back to the captain and continued painting. A sigh of relief escaped his lips. Jones and the infamous green van were no longer a threat to Katie or Sal, though he had no doubt Ruby kept a never-ending supply of depraved thugs on his payroll.
Nick finished up the painting and left his grandmother thumbing through a catalogue of restaurant linens while he went to pick up the wrought iron wall sconces she had ordered. Sal would be home from school when he returned and would help install them. Once the sconces were on the walls, they could move the tables and chairs back in place and let Nonna dress the tables in new linens.
Nick called out, “Hey, Sal, I’m back,” as he entered the front door.
Nonna and Katie embraced in the kitchen. Both looked at him with teary eyes.
His surprise to see Katie dissolved into fear at the sight of her stricken expression. His throat tightened. “What’s wrong?” Nick tossed a paper bag of screws from the hardware store onto the table as he hurried toward her.
Nonna glared, waved him away, and mumbled something in Italian. She cupped her hands around Katie’s face, kissed her forehead and then both of her cheeks. She left the kitchen, pulling the door shut behind her.
“Are you okay?” Nick took a tentative step toward Katie and held out his hands. “I was going to call you. I-I was so busy working on the restaurant.”
Katie turned away from him and laid her fist on the kitchen table. As she opened her hand, Nick heard a dull, metallic thunk. Katie’s engagement ring wobbled on the wooden table, the diamonds caught the overhead light, projecting a moving pattern of tiny sparkles across the walls. She looked at Nick with tears streaming from her eyes, opened her mouth to speak but then shook her head and ran out the door. Her footsteps running down the staircase grew fainter. The door at the foot of stairs slammed.
Nick’s heartbeat pounded in his ears. He leaned on the back of a chair to steady himself and told himself it was better this way. Katie would be safe if she weren’t in a relationship with him. He repeated the words in his mind, but his heart ached.
Nonna burst into the kitchen wagging her finger and yelling, “Stupido, stupido, stupido! You go after her, Nickie. You fix this—”
A thin, high-pitched ringing in his ears obliterated the rest of her words. The room dimmed, as though he viewed it through a foggy, rain-soaked windshield.
Nonna covered her mouth with her hands as Nick sank into a sitting position on the kitchen floor, his back against the cabinets. He hugged his knees to his chest and laid his forehead on his crossed arms. Nonna hovered over him, patting his head. “Mi dispiace, I’m sorry, Nickie, mi dispiace.”
Sal walked into the kitchen. “Did Nick call me?” He stared down at Nick. “What happened? He hurt?” He looked at his grandmother.
She pointed to the table.
Sal picked up the ring. “This is Katie’s ring, right? What’s it doing here?”
Nick raised his head and looked at his brother with dulled eyes.
Sal paused open-mouthed. “Oh, crap.”
Nonna snatched the ring from Sal’s hand and shooed him away. “Leave Nickie alone.”
Sal shot his grandmother a defiant glance and crouched down next to his brother. He gripped Nick’s shoulder. “I’m really sorry, Nick.”
Nick jumped up and brushed past his grandmother and brother. They were both talking, but he didn’t hear what either said. He ran down the stairs, through the restaurant, out the back door and into the fenced rear yard. In the corner behind the dumpster, he leaned his head against the rough, wooden fence. Katie returning his ring shouldn’t be a surprise. He had told her he didn’t want to see her anymore. He lied to her, ignored her calls and acted irrationally the last few times he had seen her. All she knew was the Ruby-manufactured persona from the newscasts, the website or tabloid articles which bragged about his fictional exploits with other women. Thinking he could rid himself of Ruby and the demons before his relationship with Katie imploded had been a fantasy. He wiped his eyes and drew in a deep breath of fresh air. If telling Ruby that Katie had broken their engagement would protect her from harm, it would be worth it. But he knew better. Ruby would continue to threaten Katie, or worse. She’ll always be in danger because he’d never stop loving her and Ruby would use his love for her against him.
He punched the fence, and then cursed, cradling his bloodied knuckles with his other hand. Deep down he knew Katie loved him. If he told her the truth, she would forgive him—if she believed his fantastical story. But Nick couldn’t chance putting her in more danger.
“You okay?” Sal ran toward him. He touched the fresh blood stain on the fence slat. “I did that once. Flippin’ hurts. This old wood’s harder than it looks. Like ol’ Eddie says, never punch anything harder than your fist.”
Nick grunted at his brother’s simple wisdom. He crooked his arm around Sal’s neck. “Ain’t that the truth.”
“Everybody knows you guys belong together. Katie loves you, Nick. You want me to talk to her for you?”
“No. Leave it alone.” Nick released his hold on Sal. “There’s some things I need to do. Can you finish up here, hang the sconces and move the tables back into place?”
Sal straightened his shoulders. “Sure, I can handle it. What do you have to do?”
“Some stuff.” Nick walked beside his brother into the kitchen. “Sal, even though Katie broke our en–” He paused, the words stuck in his throat. “I still need you to walk her home after work, understand? I’ll try to follow in the car.”
“Geez, Nick. What if she gets pissed or tells me to get lost?”
“Then follow four feet behind her. Swear to me you’ll make sure she gets home every night.”
“All right, if you want me to. But it’s gonna be weird, now that you guys are broke up.”
“I’m counting on you, Sal. She’s still in danger.”
Sal nodded his head and stared with solemn eyes at Nick’s grim expression.
Nick pulled his car keys from his jeans pocket. “Thank you, Sal. For everything.”
“Hey, wait, when will I see you again?”
“I’ll call you.” Nick hurried out the door to his car.
The luxurious apartment felt like a prison cell and depression enveloped Nick the minute he entered. He immediately checked the refrigerator for beer and found it had been well-stocked with six-packs of Budweiser. He stopped his hand from grabbing the nearest icy bottle and slammed the door, refusing to let Ruby keep him in a drunken haze. He snooped around the other rooms to see if anything else had been added or removed.
A black suit bag hung on the bedroom closet door. Pinned to the bag, and dated for two days from today, he found an invitation to the premiere for Night Birds.
Grabbing his gym bag from the closet, he stuffed it with clothes and toiletries. By tomorrow, he planned to be far away from the city and Ruby. Perhaps the distance might sever the hold the demons had over him. Vague thoughts flitted through his mind. He had restaurant experience or maybe he’d land a job as a stringer at a newspaper. Money, for once, wasn’t a problem. He’d deposited all of Ruby’s six figure checks into his bank account. Once settled, he’d convince Katie to join him. He’d find a city with a large hospital so she could continue her nursing career.
The cowardly plan gnawed at his stomach. He didn’t want to leave his family and spend his life running, but reasoning with Ruby had failed and fighting him proved futile. He remembered the night he watched as Bethany Grant fled the city in a yellow cab. She had escaped Ruby. He would, too.
On an impulse, Nick sat at the desk, opened his laptop and typed a letter to Katie. Starting with the night of VIP party, he detailed everything about Ruby. He confessed the lies he had told Katie to protect her from the truth. He wrote how he witnessed Cullen’s gruesome possession, his own demons, Ruby’s transformation into the devil, Chris’s suicide note, Ruby beating Stephanie, Ray’s shooting and finally the attack on his family at the restaurant. He told how Bethany had escaped Ruby, and his own plan to flee the city.
He told her about Artie and how he prayed leaving the city would release him from the clutches of the twisted murderer inside him who was hell-bent on killing her.
He typed non-stop for an hour, pouring out his frustrations, fears and hopes for their future. At the end, he told Katie how much he loved her and how deeply sorry he felt for not being able to stop Ruby or control the demons inside him. He begged her to join him once he was certain he was free of Ruby and the demons who controlled him.
Hitting the print button, he stood, paced the room and finally flipped on the television to break the suffocating silence in the apartment. He brewed coffee for his road trip. Searching the kitchen cabinets for a thermos, he froze when he heard a reporter’s words on the television.
“The mysterious disappearance of young actress, Bethany Grant, has reached a tragic and gruesome conclusion this evening. We now join Rob Taylor live at the grizzly scene in Ocala, Florida.”
Rushing into the living room, he watched as rescue workers hauled two black body bags from a deep, overgrown ravine. The reporter on the scene said Bethany’s mutilated body, and the body of her fiancé, were found today in a wooded area, sixteen miles from her home in Florida. The rest of the reporter’s words were lost. Nick kept on punching the screen until the sputtering electronic flashes of light stopped and it turned black and silent. It dangled by one bolt, swaying against the wall with a raspy, scraping sound.
That evening, he sped into Ruby’s parking lot and screeched the Mustang to a stop. A few employee’s cars remained. Lights burned in the windows of the lower floors and the front doors were unlocked. He rode the elevator to Ruby’s office suite on the eighth floor. The locked door sported a shiny, new sticker, Protected by Ace Alarm Company. The police would arrive before he could break down two doors and locate his contract in Ruby’s ominous file drawer.
He strode to the far end of the hallway to a small, private elevator. He stepped inside and rode up the one floor to Ruby’s living quarters.
The elevator doors slid open revealing a framed painting of Dante’s Inferno adorning the wall of a small foyer. Floor-length burgundy velvet drapes covered the window to his left and two massive, mahogany doors stood to his right. The entrance, with its intricate carvings and stout iron hardware, looked like it belonged in a medieval castle rather than a modern high-rise.
He gripped the heavy metal ring in the lion’s mouth knocker and slammed it against the door three times. Sweat coated his body from the heat radiating through the ornate doors.
The doors swung open, revealing Ruby, dressed in a black satin robe with a red collar and sash. His dark eyes glistened, and his lips parted in an ugly facsimile of a smile. “Good evening, Nick. What a pleasant surprise.” Ruby gave a little bow and an elaborate hand flourish. “Do come in.”
A wave of hot air hit Nick’s face, sucking his breath away. His eyes immediately fixed on a floor to ceiling, twenty-foot wide glass wall with flames raging behind it. Ruby’s fireplace. There were no visible windows in the suite. The polished black marble walls and floor of the foyer opened into a expansive room in front of the immense, glass-enclosed inferno. A blood-red carpet covered the living room floor and statues of grotesque horned creatures with stony eyes stared from various perches around the room.
Talon lounged on a black leather sectional, her long, lean body, barely covered in a sheer bra and panties, her tan skin oiled with sweat. She ran her red tongue over her redder lips and patted the seat cushion beside her. “Join us, Nick.”
Nick ignored her and jabbed his finger into Ruby’s chest. “I came to talk to you about the shooting.”
Ruby’s eyes narrowed as he brushed Nick’s hand away. “I’d prefer you make an appointment during office hours. But, since you’re here, don’t be so rude, Nick. I don’t believe I’ve ever formally introduced you two.” He beckoned to Talon.
She walked to Ruby’s side with the confident stride of a runway model, her chin high and her black, stiletto heels drummed a slow staccato beat on the marble floor of the foyer.
“Talon, meet Nick Tera, horror writer and soon to be serial killer.” Ruby’s low giggle grew into a rant of maniacal laughter that filled the room. The ruddy skin on his face vibrated as he howled, flickering between his human form and a black, reptilian-looking image lurking beneath. His outburst stopped as abruptly as it started. “And, Nick, let me introduce you to my dearest daughter, Talon.”
Talon seized Nick’s hands and pulled him toward her.
He wrenched his hands from her vice-like grip and stepped back. Glaring at her, and then at Ruby, he spat, “Your daughter? You disgusting—”
“Tsk, tsk,” Ruby turned to Talon. “Seems we’ve offended Mr. Tera’s delicate morals.” He snapped his fingers, his long nails clicking against each other. “Run along, my dear.”
Talon stuck out her bottom lip in a mock pout, swiveled on one skinny heel and sauntered off down a long, dim hallway.
“I invite you into my home and you insult me?” Ruby pointed a polished nail at Nick’s chest. “Those are not allowed in my home.”
The cross tucked beneath Nick’s tee shirt heated against his skin, the red-hot metal singed his chest hair. Fumbling to grasp the chain, he yanked it over his head. Searing heat shot up the chain, burning his fingers. He dropped it on the floor.
Ruby turned his back and walked to a corner bar, well-stocked with liquor bottles and decorative decanters. He poured red liquid from a cut-glass decanter into a silver chalice.
“Why are you here, Nick?”
“You tried to kill my family. Now I’m going to kill you.” Nick leaped onto Ruby’s back, knocking him to the floor. A brilliant-red rage blinded him. He pounded his fist into Ruby’s stunned face. Grabbing Ruby’s satin collar, he slammed the back of his head into the marble floor.
Nick’s back hit the heavy front doors just as he realized he had been blasted through the air. He dropped onto the hard floor, dazed, and stared at his burning hands until his brain made sense of what his eyes saw. He screamed and held up the two flaming torches at the end of his arms. Trying to smother the fire, he beat his hands against his torso and the door. The flames flared higher, blistering his flesh with excruciating pain. His screams turned to desperate, raw gulps as he watched his skin char and then drift away in black ashy, sheets. Burning chunks of tissue dropped from his bones with sickening soft plops and lay smoldering on the shiny floor. He smelled his flesh burning and saw the skeletal remains of his hands silhouetted inside the two ferocious blazes.
Ruby climbed to his feet, straightened his robe and smoothed back his hair.
Nick whimpered, “Make it stop.” He curled into a fetal position on the floor with his arms stretched out. Flames covered the blackened bones of his fingers.
Ruby strolled across the foyer humming a bar of ‘Happy Birthday.’ “Shall I make a wish first?” He puckered his lips, bent at the waist and then blew out each flaming hand.
Nick squeezed his eyes closed and tucked his body tighter. The super-heated air didn’t allow tears or sweat to flow. “Kill me,” he gasped. “Take my soul. End this.”
“Stop your whining.” Ruby kicked Nick’s ribs. “Get up!”
Nick panted short, ragged breaths as he opened his eyes. He turned his hands over and over staring at both sides, shocked to see his flesh intact and unscathed from the fire.
“You can’t wield a knife with bones for fingers, now can you?” Ruby swiped his hand across the blood trickling from a cut under his eye. His long, tapered tongue lapped the red smear from his fingers. Nick crawled to the door, grabbed onto the knobs and pulled himself upright. He flattened his battered body against the oven-hot wood and gulped in air that burned his mouth and nostrils.
“You will go to the premiere tomorrow night,” Ruby said. “You will smile and be charming when I present the winner of the contest. The press will document your date. It will appear the girl was driven home, instead, you will bring the young lady back to your apartment and let Artie have his fun.” Ruby strolled to the bar and picked up his untouched drink. “My people will do the clean up the following day. Nick Tera, horror writer, will continue to enjoy wealth and fame. And Artie will be satisfied . . . for now at least.”
“Kill me! You still get a soul. I won’t murder any—”
“If you refuse to cooperate, I’ll send Artie, via your body, to slaughter Katie instead. I don’t care either way, but Artie has expressed a strong preference for your fiancée.” Shrugging his shoulders, he took a long drink from the chalice and then smacked his lips. “He’s quite smitten with Katie.”
Ruby kicked the cross with the toe of his leather slipper. “Leave my home.”
Nick bent and scooped up the chain as it slid past his feet. The metal had cooled, and he jammed it into his pocket. “Please, I’m begging you, don’t you have any mercy?”
As he pleaded, Nick saw faces form inside the huge fireplace behind Ruby. A mass of pale, distorted heads writhed in the flames. Their eyes, blank white ovals, and their mouths, black and gaping open in tortured screams, yet emitting no sounds. Elongated fingers stretched from misshapen hands pressed and clawed against the glass. Icy terror tightened around his pounding heart. He tore his gaze away from the horrific sight of Chris Turner’s and Bethany Grant’s tormented faces among the frenzied mass.
“I’m being quite merciful, Nick. I’ll overlook your intrusion into my home, your insult to my daughter and your pathetic outburst. But I won’t kill you tonight, or anytime soon for that matter. If you don’t show up at the premiere, or are one minute late, you’ll live on for decades in a prison cell with Artie’s fond memories for company. Katie’s dying screams and the vision of the knife you held in your hands as you very slowly slashed your beloved to death. And of course, her blood.” Ruby smiled, his teeth coated in a crimson sheen. “And that’s only the beginning of my plans for you. When you finally die of old age, I’ll see you in Hell.”